The David Brooks Problem

February 17, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Basketball Jesus

By Marie Burns:

Jeremy Lin is a young man who is just learning how all sorts of people will misuse and abuse him. He is well aware of some of these abuses: ethnic stereotyping has repeatedly stymied his basketball career, and racial insults have greeted his sudden stardom as a New York Knicks player. Still, Lin might be surprised at how David Brooks makes him an exemplar of the incompatibility of sports and religion. In New York Times column titled “The Jeremy Lin Problem,” Brooks defines Lin’s “problem”: “He’s a religious person in professional sports.”

In a country where a majority of people describe themselves as religious, how is religion a particular problem for a professional athlete? Brooks explains: “The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith….” That is, he says, “the sporting ethos … violates the religious ethos on many levels.”


Brooks discusses the attributes of “the modern sports hero.” Let me just say that the term “sports hero,” generally speaking, is an oxymoron. There are a few athletes who have coincidentally overcome tremendous hardships to go on to be athletic superstars. Lance Armstrong, afflicted with cancer and at one point given little chance to live, is a good example of that kind of heroism. But whether or not he went on to become a sports star, Armstrong’s determination in battling cancer would have been heroic. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been just as, or nearly as, heroic as was Lance Armstrong. But there is nothing – nothing – “heroic” about slam-dunks and touchdowns. They are high points in the art of the game, but they are not heroic. Soldiers, policemen, firemen, teachers, nurses, people who get up and go to boring or stressful jobs every day to take care of their families – they are heroic. Getting paid a lot of money, or hoping to get paid a lot of money, to hit a little ball into the stands is so not heroic.

Brooks then takes his flawed thesis to the next logical step: the “primary virtue of … the modern sports hero … is courage,” he writes. Again, not really. Brooks himself describes the traits of the sports standout as “ambitious,” “theatrical,” “proud” and “intimidating.” These are not the attributes of a courageous person; they are characteristics associated with narcissism and self-aggrandizement. Pride is one of Christianity’s “seven deadly sins.” Courage, by contrast, is a chivalric virtue. Although I don’t read the sports pages, where hyperbolic adjectives are a stock-in-trade, I doubt that “chivalric” is often used to describe athletes (though I’ll stipulate “courageous” is likely much overused and misdirected). Courage, like heroism, is not a term aptly associated with most sports stars.

Brooks writes, “This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” That is half-true. Sports and military models shape how men think about other aspects of life. Generally, women reject – or are unfamiliar with – those models. In fact, as the women’s movement allowed women to compete on a theoretically “level playing field” (to borrow a term Brooks would appreciate), there were reams written about how women did not fit into a business model based on military – top-down – organization and athletic – competitive – tenets. Brooks is writing about men for men from a myopic masculine perspective.

“There’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels,” Brooks writes. Oh, count me as a denier. Brooks describes the religious experience as one coming from debility. He uses terms like “self-abnegation,” “lose yourself,” “give up,” “menial” and “self-effacement.” “You achieve strength, Brooks writes, “by acknowledging your weaknesses.”

Well, yes, that is one way of approaching a religious experience. But there are more positive ways. Many religious people – athletes in particular – celebrate what they see as their “God-given talent.” Religious believers routinely thank god for the most minor matters and the most dubious of gifts: “God took everything I owned in the tornado, but he saved my life. I know he put me through this trial because he has big plans for me.” Weakness? No. It is pretty hubristic to think the creator of the universe is paying particular attention to one own life’s course. “Humility,” which Brooks describes as “the primary virtue” of religion, has nothing to do with it. I happen to think the idea that a supreme being is watching over each of us is nonsense, but religious people almost always tell us that religion is a source of strength for them.

Having asserted this false dichotomy between sports and religion, Brooks claims that even “the most perceptive athletes” have been unable to reconcile the conflicting pulls of sports and religion. Getting back to Jeremy Lin, Brooks cites as a proof of his thesis that Lin himself once told an interviewer: “I wanted to do well for myself and my team. How can I possibly give that up and play selflessly for God?” Yes, indeed, the young man recognized an insurmountable conflict between sports and religion. Only he didn’t. In the very next breath, Lin went on to relate how his faith taught him to be both a better ballplayer and better person:

There are really so many ways you can apply your faith to basketball…. That’s why every day, when I wake up and go to practice, I remind myself to be grateful that I have been so blessed. I could try to take credit for whatever success I’ve had, but honestly I see my basketball career as a miracle. That puts things into perspective for me.

Completely ignoring the content of Lin’s observations on faith and basketball, Brooks claims that Lin – and other athletes – can never reconcile their faith with their profession. Brooks writes, “The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable.” Never mind that even as a young man Lin has been able to reconcile those “two moral universes.”

This is vintage Brooks. Establish a thesis, then take a remark out of context to “prove” it. You might call it the Mitt Romney Approach to Journalism. (Romney got a “pants-on-fire” designation for his effort. Whatever prize shall we give Brooks?)

Brooks goes on to cite the work of theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, who held that

people have two natures. First, there is ‘Adam the First,’ the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is ‘Adam the Second,’ the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper. Soloveitchik [writes that] these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility.

According to Brooks, Soloveitchik concluded that these different natures “exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.” I haven’t read Soloveitchik, so maybe Brooks is right. But not according to Wikipedia. The Wiki entry on Soloveitchik claims that “Soloveitchik describes how the man of faith integrates both of these aspects.” So here again, Brooks may be mischaracterizing the views of his subject to make a point that is contrary to the person’s actual views.

What Brooks is describing is the tension that exists for every individual: the tension between subject and object: “I” and “you” or “I” and “them.” Every single person – religious or otherwise, athlete or not – must navigate that divide. We all figure out, as best we can, how to integrate ourselves into a world and society that don’t exist for our own personal pleasure. It is called “growing up.” It is a lifelong process. For many people, like Jeremy Lin, religion facilitates that process. It provides a matrix that defines how the individual fits into the universe. Those of us who don’t accept these prefabricated matrices cobble together our own worldviews.

Brooks concludes that “Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who … want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean.” The second half of this is true, at least for Christian believers: a definition of heaven might be “a world … where everything is easy, untragic and clean.” But sane people – whether or not they believe in an afterlife – don’t expect life in this world to be “easy, untragic and clean.” In fact, belief in an afterlife is itself a recognition that life is not “easy, untragic and clean.” Heaven is a dream that acknowledges the hardships of earthly realities.

Brooks has told us Jeremy Lin has a problem. But Lin’s “problems” are of the same nature that everyone faces and more often than not successfully maneuvers. To single out Lin, to concentrate on his faith, then to mischaracterize how Lin approaches his faith and integrates it with his profession, is dishonest.

But then, Brooks is seldom able to make forthright arguments based on real-world considerations because his own views so often blur reality. It would appear that Brooks himself wants to live “in a world in which there is only one morality,” and that “one morality” should be of his making. Time and again, Brooks asks people whose life experiences are radically different from his to conform to his peculiar moral code. That is the David Brooks problem. I do not foresee a solution.

Marie Burns blogs at



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